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Who among us hasn’t played what we used to call “The What-If Game” – as in- “What if I had…?” or “What if you did…?” Too often- the question centered on “What if you won the Lottery?” or it’s close relative- “What if you found you had a big inheritance from an unknown relative?” Well- of course- in my circle of friends- the answer often came in the form of an aeronautical conveyance of some form: a rare warbird- a hot- ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st October 2007
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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New Or Newly Renewed?
You can get more - or as much - for much less.

Who among us hasn’t played what we used to call “The What-If Game” – as in- “What if I had…?” or “What if you did…?” Too often- the question centered on “What if you won the Lottery?” or it’s close relative- “What if you found you had a big inheritance from an unknown relative?”

Well- of course- in my circle of friends- the answer often came in the form of an aeronautical conveyance of some form: a rare warbird- a hot- single-seat racer- an antique bush plane- an amphib for those far-flung family fantasies- and- of course- a business jet to help us oversee the vast financial empire we now commanded. Then someone would put out a call for food and the discussion usually took a culinary turn.

Today- large corporations and the financially successful often play that same game – except with a serious goal: to actually select a business investment like a private aircraft for their travel needs. Plenty of people with plenty of money are still smart enough to stop and consider the “What if” question from a financial perspective. After all- you don’t become legitimately secure by frittering away needlessly those very bucks that underpin your security.

Some of those what-if questions may center on the basic decision: Own- share- lease or charter. If you’ve got the bucks to own- after all- you’ve probably got the bucks to share- lease or charter without giving it a thought – but your accountant will know the different reasons one of those choices is the better solution for you. We’ve discussed some of those differences within past months’ pages of this publication.

Another- similar question worth exploring can similarly influence the financial equation: New or pre-owned; or- even more appropriately: New or renewed. As noted- for many- money won’t be an object; unless- that is- getting the most for the least is a goal. It is from this perspective that a pre-owned- upgraded or upgradeable aircraft can often deliver all that’s desired for a lower initial entry cost- better life-long costs – and without losing a step to comparable newer hardware.

Competition for the fittest
These days the market is awash with people wanting to become private aircraft users; as personal wealth and corporate success have come to the upper income brackets- as stock prices and profits have gone- so grows the demand for corporate jets and turboprops.

There are a few problems for some of these want-to-go-private aspirants – even if they have the funds to write a personal check for a jet. First and foremost- the backlogs for the newest- latest-and-greatest in corporate aviation typically runs into years- which means short of chancing upon someone willing to sell an earlier delivery position those new-plane ambitions will be a while before they get fulfilled. Of course- there’s pre-owned business aircraft – lots of them if you don’t set your standards too high in terms of the cockpit technology or interior-appointments departments. Competition for the top-of-the-stack among pre-owned aircraft- as has been discussed many times in World Aircraft Sales Magazine- is fierce- with prices often coming closer to new than you might expect.

For those willing to cast the widest net- however- there are aircraft out there being refurbished – or already upgraded – that can deliver the essence of what is needed from a corporate aircraft. You may find a candidate for refurbishment- or one undergoing an upgrade at a stage that still allows your input on paint and interior. Or you may find an airplane that looks- acts and smells new – but is the result of a little TLC- a facelift- keeping it competitive with younger planes. We’ll look at what certain upgrades can offer and what they can’t – and let you decide.

A knot is a knot…
One parameter you should understand that won’t necessarily change much is the cruise speed potential of an older airplane getting an upgrade – even an engine upgrade. Speed gains through power alone usually require large gains in thrust that can detrimentally domino through other parameters such as fuel flow- range and cabin payload.

Not that some engine upgrades don’t deliver improved performance – but in general- those gains are up high and thanks to advances in engine design that allow the powerplant to make better thrust at altitude than the engine replaced- even when their sea-level thrust ratings were similar.

In fact- better climb and fuel economy are the most common gains from engine upgrades – along with lower sound levels- reduced maintenance needs and extended hot-section inspection intervals. Thankfully- all of these gains generally translate into lower costs- both operating and owning.

Engine upgrades such as those for the older Learjets and Cessna Citations and Falcon 50s can provide dramatic performance gains in runway- climb and range- even with full-fuel payload thanks to their lighter engines and reduced fuel requirements. Thanks to higher cruise-altitude thrust performance of the replacement engines- conversions like these can pick up more than a few knots.

But some other conversion may not always deliver the same way and even with a newer- more-efficient engine- the cruise numbers you saw before the engine upgrade will be similar to the ones you see afterwards. With the widespread availability of many desirable airframes- look for engine enhancements to remain a factor worth considering when contemplating whether to buy new or renewed.

Avionics advances add to the asset
Another frequent source of the type of expensive maintenance and downtime that prompts pilots to upgrade their wings is the vast collection of electro-mechanical gyros- gauges and instruments populating the panel.

Although avionics advances have long been applied to many a popular jet airframe (including IFR GPS- WAAS- Multifunction Displays (MFDs)- and weather datalink (with and without Mode S transponders) and- coming soon- ADS-B)- only in recent years have viable options arrived for updating all that other panel hardware. And the costs of these options were not for the faint of heart- or light of wallet.

Just keeping the old stuff running was an exercise in crisis planning and fiscal frustration as it got older and broke more often. But opting to put a $500-000 panel in an older business jet worth less than a million dollars – and in need of engines- paint and interior – made the whole idea pretty much dead. Recent advances- though- from Avidyne- Garmin and- most recently- Aspen Avionics have brought down the costs of the potential panel of your dreams – and brought up the level of utility and reliability.

Replacing old electric- and air-driven gyros with newer versions of the old stuff didn’t really up the ante in reducing maintenance or improving utility the way a modern all-electronic primary flight-display system can. Thankfully- the bulk of the better products are coming to market targeting the certificated aircraft owner- which means the new Garmin- Avidyne and Aspen Avionics gear can be installed in pretty much any business jet. There may be some field approval or STC issues to resolve – but the potential exists to make any number of older jets – anything from the pre-EFIS era – upgradeable to all-glass.

Aspen Avionics- for example- recently unveiled a product called the Evolution EFD1000 that can- for under $30-000- bring an all-glass panel to an aircraft without the need to rework the panel to accept a bunch of rectangular boxes.

Where first impressions are won or lost
Perhaps the upgrade with the longest history and the most-impact on the back-cabin occupants are improvements to the exterior and upholstery – the paint and interior. There are companies that exist to create new paint designs for aircraft- and whose experience spans the spectrum from airlines to corporate- and experimental. The best design companies can also recommend top performing shops to apply their art work carefully and for maximum life.

Prior to painting- though- dealing with any airframe-changing upgrades would be wise – such as adding or moving antennae for a panel upgrade and changing or replacing engine cowls with a powerplant upgrade. During the painting preparation process it would also be a good idea to make sure all the windows are in top condition. As for the interior- these days the options are broader than ever thanks to the advent of airborne entertainment and internet services- new options for phoning- and watching movies on DVD. Some systems provide for multiple screens with multiple- individually selectable display choices- for both bulkhead- and seat-back-mounted video screens- headphone jacks – even interior wireless internet.

Even new furniture- tables- seats and lighting can come into play along with new carpeting- upholstery and trim. There are few limits and lots of choices. But nothing says “New plane!” quite like a stellar paint job and the new-toy aroma of freshly installed leathers- woods and wools.

Which way to go?
As with most aspects of aviation- there’s no single- simple answer as to which way to go. The answer depends on your wants- needs and resources. Contacting a broker or consultant to help you shop for a freshly refurbish corporate aircraft is one way to look for something new in something older.

You could be advised to settle on a package of upgrades from a specific vendor and let them help you find the raw-material aircraft on which they’ll work their magic. A more-expensive option is often to buy one that the shop has refurbished “on spec”- as they say- for speculative investments.

You can find the airframe that best suits you and explore what engine- panel- paint and interior upgrades are commonly available. Alternatively- you can opt to have all these different elements upgraded in one long process- or tackle them in sequence; the difference could be significant in overall costs and downtime – one long period versus several shorter ones. The money you save…

This can be significant – as in getting new-jet performance- better-than-new-jet payload and state-of-the-art systems to help keep maintenance and operating costs closer to new than used.

Think in terms- potentially- of savings as high as 60 percent in fuel and maintenance- as high as 40 to 50 percent in acquisition costs – and in years not spent waiting on the new one.

Residual value- thanks to the new- modern engines- state-of-the-art panel and digital instruments- will stay higher for longer than most new birds of similar size and performance.

Living with a veteran aircraft that flies as fast- as far- as frugally and as comfortably as a new plane – while you’re writing checks for significantly less money – can have a long-term effect on your bank account big enough to let you plan on new next time… If you’re still interested in new- that is.

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